If you thought that buying a tandem was the perfect way to get a non-cycling partner onto two wheels, you'd be right. Think about the possibilities. Day trips on bike paths. Easy spins in the forest. Weekend tours or longer camping trips.
However, your triathlete’s enthusiasm could put your spouse off cycling forever. We've owned two tandems and ridden in China, Greece, USA, Spain, France, Lebanon, UK, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Germany. The ideas below are specifically aimed at triathletes who are probably strong cyclists but may not have ridden a tandem or been bike touring.
Where do you sit?
The rider at the front is the Captain or Pilot. I prefer Captain. The rider at the back is the Stoker. Stoking the fire. Usually the taller and stronger rider sits at the front. If you're using front panniers the Captain will definitely have a bigger load to handle when starting, stopping or steering.
I've never seen a tandem built higher at the back but that doesn't mean it's not possible. If you’re going custom-made I’m sure that anything is possible. Our tandems have always been set-up racier at the front (drop-bars) for me and more relaxed (high straight-bars) at the back for Gwen.
Pack (Seriously) Light
It’s a careful balance between comfort and lightness. Something that bike tourists are always refining. We don’t compromise on bedding; packing good self-inflating mats and pillows. We do take less clothes. I always say that I pack the same for a two day trip as I would for a 2 month trip.
We’ve made packing mistakes. Not taking a cooking system when touring in the USA was one. We had this image of relaxing with a burger and micro-brew outside of a trendy pub every evening. The reality was that many camp-sites were in very rural locations. Make sure you know where your next meal is coming from. Where is the last supermarket before camp?
Slow Down (A Lot)
With two comfortable and fit riders it’s possible for a tandem to go pretty fast on flat or rolling terrain. But don’t plan on that. Don't take any ideas of speed from your time riding a solo bike.There's no comparison and it will ruin your holiday. Take it easy and the speed will come when both of you want it to.
Stop Often and Plan Other Activities
Don’t rush. Ride all day and get from campsite to campsite. Stop at a castle, dip your feet in a stream, have a coffee or a picnic. Read, write, sleep and take photos. Swim or jog en route. Visit Museums.
Ride mornings and have other plans for the afternoon. What about a themed tour to visit places that interest you? Castles, breweries, bike shops, book shops, farm visits, wild swimming holes, surf spots, battlefields.
Don’t Compromise On The Cadence
Ride at the cadence the least experienced rider prefers. A good rider is comfortable at a range of cadences. A beginner isn’t. Let them choose the cadence and give instructions to speed up or slow down. Your stoker will hate the feeling of the pedal dropping away without them being able to exert any pressure.
Aim For A Modest Daily Mileage
New to tandeming? One experienced rider? Start out with 60km. Move up to 80km. Get the feeling of going on a journey but know the daily distance is achievable for BOTH OF YOU. Hills are super-hard on a tandem but long flat days are hard too.
Don’t plan on going to the Alps or Pyrenees for your first tandem tour. Even for experienced tandem riders the first day on tour is always hard. Plan for that. Don't worry. With long days in the saddle ahead an endurance boost is guaranteed.
Look After Your Butt Cheeks
Fact. You don’t get to stand up much on a tandem. Balance and coordination is harder than on a solo bike. Both riders have to want to / need to stand up at the same time. You’re also hauling a load. You end up putting serious force through the pedals throughout the day.
Your saddle is an investment. Spend time breaking it in and it will improve and mature. Maybe a Brooks B17. Buy good shorts. Apply copious vaseline before you think you need to. Rinse them out well every night. Ease off the saddle on downhills. Lower cadences = less leg movement = less saddle / short / bottom friction
Getting On Your Tandem
Have a routine. Practice it before you leave. Nothing worse than looking like amateurs as you leave camp or take off from a café. For us it’s both right pedals up in the two o clock position. One. Two. Three. Push down. Up onto the saddle. Left foot on. Go.
We coast the downhills. Always. We’re not in a hurry. If you’re a confident descender take it easy and communicate with your stoker. They might be scared. Disc brakes are available now. Definitely better than rim brakes for tandems. We’ve had to stop in the past to squirt water on hot rims to avoid a blow-out.
Avoid Stoker's Knee
When we had our Thorn tandem built we asked for the gear shifters to be fitted at the back for the stoker to operate. If the captain is the gear changer make sure that they signal changes to the stoker to avoid sudden increases or decreases in cadence. Stoker's knee. It's real.
Share The Work
Have jobs on the bike and jobs in camp. I handle most of the equipment. The bike, stove and any mechanical issues. I break camp and look after route planning and finding. Gwen does logistics. Train tickets. Hotel and campsite bookings. Tent pitching. Sourcing and buying food.
Use Bike Paths
There's no valour in using busy roads to go faster or further. Don't be afraid of bike paths. In France and Germany they are everywhere. As a triathlete there's nothing worse than a narrow strip of tarmac. For the bike tourist it's a traffic-free heaven. Look for gravel roads and non-technical forest tracks. Get some guidebooks to help plan a route. Cicerone are really good.
This could be a complete blog post all by itself. However, I’ll leave you with three thoughts. Get S&S Couplings if you plan to take your tandem on a train or plane. If you just want to ride from home or use a car, get a roof rack like the Thule one.
Ortlieb Panniers are still the gold standard, although they must have rivals these days. You’ll need something completely waterproof. Lots of pockets just complicate the packing, unpacking and finding stuff process. Carradice saddle bags are cool.
Make sure your tandem can handle multi-terrain riding. Gravel roads. Forest single track. Canal towpaths. Not just roads. Get a tyre, wheel, frame and gearing combination that allow you to go where you want and make your rides as traffic-free as possible.